HC Deb 03 August 1965 vol 717 cc1644-50

10.15 a.m.

Mr. William Yates (The Wrekin)

The purpose of the Consolidated Fund Bill is to give private Members the opportunity to impose sanctions and refuse to authorise the spending of Government money. Their first duty on this Bill, which does not deal with the wide and great national and state affairs which are carried on between Front Benches, is to stand up and defend, or speak about, the subjects involved in their constituency. I was appalled, when, for only the third time in 20 years, the Patronage Secretary tried to move the Closure on this Bill, against my appeal. It is a very serious matter. As for the hon. Gentleman the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, complaining that there were only four Members on this side of the House, these were four private Members wanting to speak about their constituencies.

Mr. Hoy

May I just say to the hon. Gentleman that I was not complaining in the least? All I was drawing his attention to was that, at such a great moment as that was, only four Members opposite took the trouble to stay.

Mr. Yates

When the Government were in opposition there were many occasions on Consolidated Fund Bills when none of their Members was present.

The situation I am faced with is that 2,000 parents in my constituency have signed a petition, which I will give to the Minister. It involves the cancellation of a primary school at Albrighton because the local gas board, the West Midlands Gas Board, cannot agree the price at which to sell the land for the building. Here is one of those gigantic muddles between two departments—a county education authority and a nationalised industry.

Of course, it would be perfectly easy for the County Education Authority, and the county council, being the planning authority, to put a compulsory purchase order on the land they require, but oh no! One is dealing with a nationalised industry. An Act of Parliament is required to enable the Shropshire County Council to obtain four acres of West Midlands Gas Board land on which to build a school, and the wrangle has been going on since 1961. I thought that this would be the right occasion to ask the Minister, or the Ministers concerned, to bang their heads together and try to get an answer either today or at least next week.

Let me give the facts, as I know them, as given to me, by interested parties. In 1961 the Shropshire Education Authority decided that it was necessary to build a new junior-primary Church of England school in Albrighton. It looked around to find a suitable site and it noticed that the West Midlands Gas Board had 13 acres, but the whole of the acreage was green belt land. There was a dispute between the county education authorities, and the Shropshire County Council and the gas board about the price. The Shropshire County Council, as the education authority, said "Very well, if there is some difficulty with the West Midlands Gas Board we had better look elsewhere."

It decided to look to the adjoining property owner and endeavoured to buy the lane it required from him. Unfortunately, for some reason which I cannot understand—although I am certain that the county councillor, Mr. Eric Whittingham, who has done so much to help might know the reasons—no compulsory purchase order was imposed against this private landowner. He represented that if the school was built it would be detrimental to his family, to his home and also to the residents nearby.

As things began to drag on, very sensibly Albrighton residents combined together and formed the Albrighton Residents' Association. I am indebted to its Chairman, Mr. Hallett, for all the information which he has provided to enable me to bring this matter to the attention of the House. I am grateful also to the Clerk of the Shropshire County Council, who has given his point of view of the present difficult circumstances which his authority faces.

Therefore, Shropshire County Council, being the planning authority, decided not to proceed on the private land which it thought that it could acquire near Meesom Road, not far from the gas board land. In 1964, however, the Shropshire Education Authority decided that it should revert to the original site in Shaw Lane and once more apply to the gas board for the use of the land. The county council asked the district valuer to value the land, but the West Midlands Gas Board could not accept the valuation as a basis for sale.

I am sure that hon. Members would like to know the reason for that. There had been some stories appearing in the Press that perhaps the Minister of Housing and Local Government would relent and that as the land belonging to the West Midlands Gas Board was in the green belt, perhaps the Minister would allow planning permission to be given for the use of the land. The Gas Board decided that if it got planning permission, the value of its land would be much greater.

Therefore, having refused to accept the valuation of the local valuer, the West Midlands Gas Board turned to the Shropshire County Council and said, "If you want to buy four or five acres of our land, it will cost you £5,000 an acre." This is a fantastic dispute between two departments, one of them doing a property speculation and holding up the whole of the school-building programme in the area. Of course, the county council could not afford to pay £5,000 an acre for a primary school site. The county council, being also the planning authority, refused the planning permission for which the gas board had applied.

The gas board, to make matters even worse, then appealed to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. One cannot, therefore, be surprised that the residents of Albrighton, in my constituency, and the officer commanding the nearby Royal Air Force station at Cosford, were horrified and surprised when the county council had to announce that the planning and the starting of building for the school in the 1965–66 programme had to be cancelled.

This is an extraordinary situation in a dispute between two Government or quasi-Government authorities as a result of which hundreds of children in the area will be denied the primary school which was supposed to be included in this year's programme of the Shropshire County Council. Nobody knows how the situation will be resolved.

I would much prefer to have had the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment, but the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill provides one of the great days when private Members can defend their constituents. I was, therefore, very annoyed to think that the Government should try to move a closure Motion, especially when the Minister who was to reply to me knew the seriousness of the problem.

All I can say to the Minister is that I will be grateful, on behalf of my entire constituency and, in particular, the residents in Albrighton, and, indeed, the Royal Air Force at Cosford, to know what has been decided about the acreage of land required from the West Midlands Gas Board for building this primary school which has been withdrawn from this year's building programme because of a local dispute which badly needs settling.

10.25 a.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. R. E. Prentice)

If I may, with leave of the House, speak again I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. William Yates) on raising a matter which is clearly of great importance to his constituency, but I would say to him, with great respect, that of course on these occasions hon. Members primarily use their opportunities to refer to matters of Ministerial responsibility, and, in the main, the matters the hon. Member has raised are not of any Ministerial responsibility whatever.

I think that the airing of the issue in the way he has done may well prove to be a useful exercise. I hope he does not think I am speaking in any derogatory way about his raising the issue. However, the assistance I can be to him at this stage is practically negligible. I may as well tell him that at the outset.

I cannot accept his invitation which he expressed in saying that he hoped that the Ministers concerned would bang their heads together, because I cannot accept that there is any necessity for that. Nor am I at this Box the spokesman for the West Midlands Gas Board. The hon. Member made reference at one stage of his speech to two authorities and at another to two Government authorities. They are just not so, and I think he knows they are not. At one time he was speaking of the local education authority, and he spoke at other times of a nationalised industry which has a commercial rôle and which disposes of its assets on commercial principles. I would not attempt to comment, and indeed, I am not in a position to comment, on whether a particular action of the West Midlands Gas Board over this land is praiseworthy or not. I am bound to say that if the hon. Member is complaining of land speculation, it is not a practice which is confined to the nationalised industries; it is a practice which is unfortunately very widespread.

However, I want briefly to remind the hon. Member of the relationship between my right hon. Friend and the local education authority. The provision of schools in Shropshire is a duty placed by Act of Parliament on Shropshire County Council. It acquires the land itself, it builds the school, it pays for the school, and it owns the school. The rôle of our Department is in relation to including a particular school in a school building programme and is really basically a function of controlling capital expenditure, as capital expenditure on school building, as on all other programmes, is limited. We have a certain amount we can allocate every year and we allocate it school by school on a basis of priorities.

Mr. William Yates

That is where I thought Ministerial responsibility came in.

Mr. Prentice

Well, yes, indeed, and I can describe very briefly, in a few sentences the way in which we exercised this. We were asked by Shropshire County Council to include this proposal in the programme for 1965–6. We agreed to its inclusion. I say "we": I should say, our predecessors of the previous Government. They agreed to its inclusion in the programme for 1965–6. It was then found that the authority, because of the difficulties to which the hon. Member referred, was not in a position to go ahead, and therefore, instead another Shropshire school was included in the programme for 1965–6. Both of them, of course, were urgently needed, the state of building throughout the country being such that no school gets anywhere near being included in a programme unless it is urgently needed. So far, therefore, in the current year one urgently needed school is included instead of another, the one to which the hon. Member referred.

Meanwhile, the school to which he referred, Albrighton School, has been included provisionally in the programme for 1966–67. When I say provisionally, I mean it is included firmly, provided, of course, that the education authority is able to go ahead and build the school. As I say, the function of acquiring land, is something on which it is not proper for me to comment, partly because it is not a Ministerial responsibility, it is a local authority one, and partly because it could reach the stage, as, according to the hon. Member, in this case it nearly did, where a compulsory purchase order was needed for the school. The hon. Gentleman explained that at one stage there was other land, not the gas board land, which was a possible site. If that were so, my right hon. Friend might have to act in a quasi-judicial capacity in deciding that issue. Therefore, it is all the more inappropriate for me to comment on the situation.

In any event, I am afraid that I cannot help very much because the acquiring of sites for schools is carried out by the 166 local education authorities in the country, many of which have difficulties of this kind and have to overcome them. On the whole, those in the urban areas have more complications than those in the rural areas, but, admittedly, this is a difficult case.

Mr. William Yates

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that my constituents consider the gas board land as public land and do not understand the technical difficulties of a dispute between a nationalised industry and the county council. They think that there should be some arbitration machinery between Government Departments and a nationalised industry.

Mr. Prentice

All I can say is that, knowing that the hon. Gentleman is such a co-operative person, I hope he will explain to his constituents the difficulties involved here. I hope he does not think that I am being in any way flippant or non-co-operative. I can only define the relative responsibilities of a nationalised industry and a local authority. Education problems are often raised with us which are the responsibility of the local education authority rather than the Department, and our powers to interfere either do not exist or are limited. That is at it should be in a service which is administered by local government.

That is as far as I can go. Obviously, those concerned will see reports of the debate. I appreciate the very great anxiety of the parents who have signed the petition and the other people in the area to whom the hon. Member has referred, and I hope that the airing of the issue may help to get things moving along the lines we would all wish.